“Where I’m Likely to Find It” by Haruki Murakami

New Yorker fiction -- May 2, 2005 issue

green light
(If you’re like me, you have a stack of partially read New Yorkers. I started thinking that I ostensibly subscribe mostly for the fiction, yet I only read the story sometimes. I hope this is the beginning of a weekly feature that will force me to read the story and respond to it. Maybe it will also spark discussion of current short stories. These are not meant to be reviews: there's no plot summary, and it’s assumed you have read the story and are ready to think about it. Don’t bother reading this until you read the story. I'm putting in stoplight icons, because not every story will be good ...)

  • Breakfast food (pancakes, donuts)
  • Gaining/losing weight (Mr. Kurumizawa)
  • Stiletto heels (compared to weapons)
  • Zen Buddhism (father-in-law, old man’s “reverse” Descartes [if you don’t think, you don’t exist] compared to Zen koan, investigator-narrator’s method of closing his eyes during which time disappears)
This odd, philosophical little unresolved mystery story reminded me of the tone of some of the recent Japanese horror movies. For a narrator, we have an unnamed Zen-like Joe Friday, or more precisely a kind of a Fox Mulder-san of missing persons, who investigates cases in which people disappear “in a certain way.” That is, into thin air. As he explains to the little girl -- the third in a trio (fairy-tale alert!) of building residents whom he questions while lounging on the couch at the 25th floor landing, “I’m looking for something ... I imagine it’s like a door.” This door, presumably, is the passageway whereby the disappearances take place.

Is the mirror the door? The little girl points out about the mirror that “of all the mirrors in the staircase, this one reflects the best. It’s not at all like the mirror in our apartment.” When the investigator looks, “sure enough, the image of me reflected in the mirror was a few degrees removed from what I was used to seeing. The me in the mirror looked plumper and happier. As if I’d just polished off a stack of hot pancakes.” Is this what Mr. Kurumizawa saw? Did he go through the mirror? He was gone for 20 days and lost 20 pounds. He uses the stairs instead of the elevator in the first place because he’s put on weight. So his disappearance achieves what the stairs didn’t?

The little girl says it might not be a door he’s looking for. It might be an umbrella. Umbrella ... recall that it was raining the night Kurumizawa’s father, the Buddhist priest, was killed by the streetcar (sparking the panic attacks in the priest’s wife), and it was raining the morning Kurumizawa vanished -- because of the rain, his golf game was cancelled and he went down to help his mother through the panic attack.

As for religion, the narrator says he has no interest, but the tone of the piece says otherwise, or at least that he’s interested in the mysterious and the philosophical. Is he hiding something? Why does he work for free? Does he work for himself or for an organization? Did he have someone in his life who disappeared, and is that why he does this? He says he’s not married. Anymore?

The old guy says he’s seen Mr. Kurumizawa “staring off into space” from the sofa. The investigator notes that directly across from the sofa is the mirror. The old man goes on to speculate, “contrary to Descartes ... sometimes we think in order not to be. Staring into space might unintentionally actually have the opposite effect.” He also says, “...water always picks the shortest route to flow down. Sometimes, though, the shortest route is actually formed by the water. The human thought process is a lot like that.” So Kurumizawa may have thought himself out of existence? Is this what the narrator is trying to do when he closes his eyes and blanks out his mind? Is he looking for “the door” not so much to find missing people but so that he, too, can disappear? His ruminations to the ceiling at Kurumizawa’s return -- “Welcome back ... to the three sides of your beautiful triangular world --- your panic-attack-prone mother, your wife, with her icepick heels, and good old Merrill Lynch.” Stilletto heels related to those sharp pencils he’s so obsessed with?

And the pancakes and donuts. The stock broker husband called her on his way back up the stairs to ask that she get started on the pancakes he wanted, because he was hungry. He never got to eat those pancakes -- instead he disappeared for 20 days and lost 20 pounds. (It sure made the narrator want some pancakes, enough to consider walking to Denny’s (there’s a Denny’s in Tokyo?!) Stock broker’s memory gone. Does the narrator want to lose his memory? If so, I can find few clues to what is bothering him, if anything.

I don’t know if this story works only because it’s Japanese, and we forgive non-Western departure from our accustomed narrative conventions, or if it works at all, really. If it does, it’s because of some elusive fairy-tale, dream logic that involves fitting these motifs together in a way that I can’t quite manage but am enjoying trying to. Regardless of all this, I liked the story, but I think we need Freud -- or somebody besides Fox Mulder-san -- on this case.


The Confessions of Nat Turner

I just finished this profound, beautiful, satisfying novel by William Styron, which won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize. In 1831 Nat Turner, a Virginia slave and preacher, led the only sustained, effective slave revolt in American history, yet few records of the event offer much detail. The only one! After years of solemn, secret planning, into which the reader is methodically and eagerly enlisted, over the course of two days Nat and some 75 followers rampaged the countryside, laying waste to 55 white souls of all ages, including women and babies, before they were caught and, of course, hanged. Fifty-five cold-blooded murders plus dozens of wounded makes Charles Manson look like Ken Lay! Styron attempts to penetrate the mind of Turner to uncover his motive and psychology and succeeds to a considerable degree, in my opinion.

The book is told in first person, most of it directly by the chained Nat awaiting execution in his cold, dank cell, the rest of it summarized in dialogue with his lawyer, a neat way to get across a lot of plot points in a hurry while maintaining scene and drama. Story begins with a vision Nat has of an inscrutable, white building high on a sea cliff -- his version of freedom and glory (he has never seen the sea). Then back to the cell, and we get what happened in dialogue with his lawyer, a befuddled white man assigned to the case. The second part of the book retraces Nat's remarkable life story in recollections, slowly, gorgeously laying the groundwork for his religious convictions that lead to his plan to plunder the countryside that has served as the backdrop for the unspeakable horrors endured by his fellow slaves. Particularly effective is Styron's use of Old Testament martyrs and prophets who rose up against the Egyptians and whose fiery rhetoric lights a blaze in Nat's mind that cannot be put out. This leads right up to the climax, which the reader has been prepared for and can't wait to read, and the scene where he storms his master's bedroom does not disappoint. The deneoument brings us back to Nat's final meeting with his lawyer on the morning of his execution and his bidding goodbye to his last living comrade, led past Nat's cell, crying out that it will be all right, that it's "nuthin'!" The hangmen's call from behind the door to "Come!" becomes in Nat's mind the voice of the Lord at last, the Lord who has, for years, abandoned him and tested his will by His silence. Nat's vision of the mysterious white building on the hill becomes a metaphor for the peace of the finally imminent Afterlife.

Interesting is how Nat's retrospective first-person prose is simply scrumptious, lavish, almost insanely wonderful, but when he speaks, his words come out in the same impoverished dialect as the other slave characters. No excuse or explanation is given for this discrepancy -- a reminder of just how much you can get away with provided you set the standard from the get-go and never look back. Styron's prose, which I had only encountered once before, in his terrific novella The Long March, is what I would call transparent. Clear, perfect, to be devoured compulsively as you think "he can't possibly keep this up" and he does. When I read Styron's natural kinsmen such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cheever, Richard Yates, I think as I read, "Goodness gracious but this son of a bitch is freaking talented with words, and he clearly knows it," but when reading this book, I found myself thinking, "Goodness gracious but this son of a bitch is freaking talented with words, and he's sparing the reader the hint of his own swaggering ego to boot." Hence, tranparency. The lily rendered as it is, no gilding required. Hence, my excitement upon emerging from this book is partly the prospect of his other novels, waiting for me in used bookstores and eBay auctions and garage sales.

Styron took a lot of heat for his matter-of-fact treatment of Nat's character, mainly from black leaders who denounced it as perpetuating the stereotype of the sex-obsessed, violent black man. Maybe they had a point. It was 1968 after all. Then again, Nat's natural development, morally and sexually, was so warped and twisted by even the mundane practical restraints of slavery, as to supply reason enough for me. And the man presided over such unprecedented and widespread carnage -- it must be remembered that he was a mass murderer, no matter his skin color. Yet, amazingly, and probably significantly, Nat himself committed just a single murder -- that of a white girl whose beauty and sincere kindness toward him somehow overboiled his frustrated rage more than all the cruelty of his various masters and their surrogates. Finally, though, and most important to a writer, Nat is written with such humanity and compassion and courage and honesty and wit that, in the usual sense, it hardly matters what he did -- the reader is with him till the end. "Write unlikeable characters," Ethan told us. "The reader will always like them." James Baldwin had a different take on the book when it came out: "He [Styron] has begun the common history -- ours." Achieving a common history is something Jim McPherson often said should be our goal: "We must develop what Ralph Ellison called the omni-American sensibility." Jim also once said, "There should be no limits whatever to the writer's imagination." Amen!

Anyway, just wanted to sound off on yet another book from decades ago that was fresh as a new penny to me and inspiring as all get out.


Congrats to Christina

This from this morning's Publishers Lunch report:

Iowa MFA Cristina Henriquez's COME TOGETHER, FALL APART, a collectionof seven short stories and a novella that capture the rhythms of life in contemporary Panama, with a particular eye to the challenges faced by the country's young women, to Megan Lynch at Riverhead, by Kate Lee at ICM (world English).

Many congrats, Christina!


Barrelhouse, barrelhousing

For those who discovered a sense of passion over the high/low culture discussion we had a while back, check out this new literary journal of pop-culture-rich fiction, poetry and sundry journalism. Steve Almond and Class of '02 grad Dan Pope made appearances that I could see. The teasers on the web site alone are worth clicking.

El Gordo, this means you, dude.


Frank Conroy tribute

This remarkable and well-attended event in the MacBride Auditorium felt kind of a like a cross between the Academy Awards and a memorial service. I was woefully underdressed, a grave miscalculation that kept me shamed and skulking in the shadows, bejeansed and bright-striped, huddling close to Tracy -- and to my mother and aunt and their friend, huge Irving fans who had driven 325 miles to be there. All minds were on Frank as Chris Merrill began his first introduction, and it felt at times as if Frank's presence really were in the room, as if we had all summoned him from beyond to cast his boyish and appreciative grin upon our gathering. Chris mentioned that Frank's first piece of advice to him when he arrived was "Get yourself a Connie."

Tom Grimes read an earnest, heartfelt dedication, but the poor guy was victimized by speaking too close into a nonoptimal microphone, rendering some of what he said unintelligible. You could tell nevertheless quite clearly just how much his relationship with Frank has affected him. Marilynne Robinson then rose and delivered a beautiful articulation of what Frank had meant to her. Once she had told him that when she came here, she had thought Chicago was closer, and that it seemed light-years away. "Yeah," said Frank, "but it's still light." She developed this theme of Frank's ability to read and understand and go right to the heart of the matter better than anyone else with such fond eloquence that she herself welled up a bit and had to pause once or twice. Her remarks were powerful and affecting.

John Irving, looking "hot," as I heard more than a couple people remark, in a pink shirt and charcoal blazer, his tanned wrestler's face framed by that trademark, whirled-up white hair, then mounted the podium and, after telling us he has no plans to ever tell the story in public again, launched into a yarn of "Dickensian coincidence" involving his sons, his ex-wife and her boyfriend Henry, a wrestling mat, a swimming pool, a ceiling fan, and Frank Conroy that was one of the very greatest and most hilarious spells of storytelling I've ever been privileged to witness in person. Truly had the entire audience in the palm of his hand and calmly proceeded to bring down the house. Everything about the story -- the timing, the wry voice modulated according to which character was speaking (his Frank was dead-on), the pacing and length and appropriateness to the occasion, the way he came at the main moments indirectly, letting the listener put it together in his or her own head -- was utterly masterful and riveting. He read it from a notebook, having introduced the piece as a first draft and promising to read something "not a first draft" afterward, which turned out to be a snippet of his new, "longest" novel, called Until I Find You Again, I think. The novel's subject matter has to do with the art of tattooing, but then the short beginning he read was about a mother introducing her son to the girls' school he's about to enter. That first, hilarious piece was a vivid, almost stunning reminder of why this man was my favorite writer for years -- it made me vow to pick up something of his again, soon, and convinced me that he is still one of the shrewdest observers of the human situation. The second piece made me wonder if he doesn't maybe revise too much and focus too much on very long works, given the crackling, raw energy of the first piece. A new book of stories, perhaps? Or he probably has one, and I've just been too out of the Irving loop to have noticed.

T.C. Boyle then read a story "about loss," vis a vis a couple who, after some drinks, a joint, and preparatory play involving the wife's new slinky lingerie, receive The Dreaded Call: Their daughter's been in a wreck, come to the hospital. The story was interspersed with abrupt reflections on cataclysmic collisions between the earth and celestial objects, such as the Tunguska object and the one that killed off the dinosaurs and 70% of life on earth, which lent the story its title but which escapes me at the moment. It was entertaining and well-rendered in language, if maybe a bit stretched out and belaboring its metaphor. I thought the bullet-dodging but still cautionary ending struck just the right tone.

President Skorton wrapped things up by addressing Frank directly, his eyes rolled up to Heaven "even though," as he said, "I don't believe in things like that," and was only "doing it for effect." He talked about Frank's jazz playing, and how Frank had gently convinced Skorton to trade in the tenor sax for an alto because his "range was okay in the middle, but the notes at the top and bottom are just not there." Frank "always spoke truth to power," said Skorton, who later took up the flute and once jumped in with it as Frank played. Frank put up with this for a bit and then said, "Why don't you just listen." The event ended with Skorton eschewing the "applause I am used to and so richly deserve" to ask that we remain quiet in our seats as a bit of Frank's music played. I didn't catch the name of the first tune, but it was a light blues ditty featuring a lot of jazzy riffing and playful ivory-tickling from Frank. The second tune served as the soundtrack to our departure. It was a fitting segue into the reception.

Which was held in the Natural History Museum downstairs, a delightfully surreal setting for milling about. There's TC Boyle sipping water and nodding in front of the Giant Sloth. There's John Irving strolling alone beside the Squaw and Her Husband. There's SER passing along the word that our next destination would be the Mill. And there was President Skorton with his sax, filling the air with jazz along with the rest of the band he and Frank had started. And the doors opened on a beautiful day, a far cry from the cold drizzle that had moistened the journey to the auditorium. All in all, it was a wonderful and stirring tribute to our late hero, which had begun, host Chris Merrill reminded us, as a celebration planned by Connie for Frank himself to enjoy in person, but turned into a remembrance. I don't know about anybody else, but it seemed to me that Frank managed to be there with us anyway.


Whenever I'm Sad, I will Think of This

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Send in the SWAT monkey.
It's not an order police commanders are accustomed to giving, but that could change if an Arizona police department follows through on a proposal to train a capuchin monkey for high-risk police operations.
A Special Weapons and Tactics veteran from Mesa, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, has researched the possibility of landing a $100,000 federal grant to fund a pilot program to train one monkey.
"Everybody laughs about it until they really start thinking about it," Sean Truelove told the East Valley Tribune, a local newspaper. "It could change the way we do business."
Major city police departments in the United States use paramilitary SWAT teams for hostage situations and in situations involving heavily armed criminals.
Truelove, who declined an interview request from Reuters, told the newspaper that the idea came to him in a dream about 18 months ago.
The test monkey could be trained to unlock doors and search buildings for police on command, Truelove was quoted as saying by the newspaper.
The capuchin monkey is considered one of the smartest primates, known by many for its decades-long association with organ grinders. The monkeys weigh three to eight pounds (1.3 kg to 3.5 kg) and live for 15 to 20 years.
Capuchin monkeys, native to southern central America, have been used to help disabled people, and are able to perform such tasks as retrieving items, serving food and opening and closing doors.
The Mesa, Arizona police department issued a statement saying: "We have always encouraged our department members to seek creative and innovative ways to improve public safety in our community."
But the department also said the idea of training a capuchin SWAT monkey had not been cleared by the department's executive ranks.
A representative from the nation's largest association of SWAT officers also could not resist poking a little fun at the proposal.
"I've always heard you can train a monkey to do anything," said Steve Smith, a board member of the National Tactical Officers Association when reached at a convention in Nashville. "Does this mean he's going to have on little black fatigues?"

With thanks to Brian.

Think of the possibilities here -- we could get a Workshop Monkey -- deliver stories, make coffee, bar tend, buy cigarettes, hold our hands when we've had a bad workshop, drive us home from The Foxhead, listen to our rambling psychological problems, etc. He could wear a little ascot and pince-nez.

If I ever have any money, I pledge to make the Workshop Monkey a reality.


Come back, Oprah

There's a new effort afoot to get Oprah to bring back her (contemporary) book club. Thanks to the Happy Booker for the head's-up.

Several of our teachers and fellow former students have signed up. What do you think, Goats--good idea, bad idea, other?

Prank paper accepted for conference

In case you missed this story, some M.I.T. students wrote a computer program that generated meaningless scientific papers, submitted them to conferences, and one of them, "Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy," was accepted. If you guys who are going to AWP next year get in a pinch, you might contact these students for some last-minute help.

Foetry Goes Down

Today's NYT details the fall of Foetry, a place of some discussion on this site.



Questions for Greeneophiles

I'm given to believe that there are several Graham Greene fans around here, and I'm looking for a few recommendations - the first, just your favorite Greene titles, since I feel like adding him to my summer reading list. All I've read thus far is The Comedians. Second, any Greene titles you think might be good for an online upper level community college modern Brit lit class. Any and all input is mightily appreciated.


Sam in Times

Times article about our new honcho. Interesting to note that she wants to raise money to fund all students fully.



The Long Excerpt

An excerpt from a wholly alarmist but very intriguing book, one of the conclusions of which seems to be that Iowa City may be a good place to be in the long run.

Happy Birthday, Dunkeys!

I had forgotten we had the same birthday until you posted. Goats, go forth and have a drink in his honor.

Happy Birthday, TLB!


Hey, here's a great idea for a show: pole dancing meets Prairie Lights!

I was spending my usual Wednesday reading The Onion when I saw an ad for a new Pamela Anderson show called Stacked. The title alone should tell you it's on Fox. Anyway, Stripperella was lounging on a bunch of books, and the copy read "you can't judge a bookstore by its cover girl." How could I not click?

Now, TLB knows that I am a superstitious man. And with the Red Sox winning the World Series, the Pope dying, and Brad and Jen splitting up, I've been in the watchtower looking for the last Horseman. Well, I think I spotted his hoof dust.

You see, Pamela plays a woman named Sklyer who tires of making amateur porn videos with drummers and has run out of pieces of her body to replace with foam rubber. So she does what any starlet in need of a change of pace would do: start working at a bookstore. The bookstore is run by two brothers who (wait for it...) couldn't be more different. One is the highbrow pole-up-the-ass closet case (aka every character ever played by David Hyde Pierce). The other is the fun-loving Joey Bagadonuts brother who wants to have sex with her because she looks like a stripper (aka Kelsey Grammer's love life). Are you ready to laugh? Don't do it just yet, there's more.

See, there's another woman who works behind the espresso bar at the bookstore. She's the wisecracking, sarcastic female foil who we know isn't desirable because a) she's a brunette and b) her nipples are not pumped full of argon. The cherry on top of this shit sunday is Christopher Lloyd, playing the steady customer who's a retired rocket scientist. No word on whether he drives a fusion-powered DeLorean.

After I got done throwing up in my mouth, I thought about the whole death-of-reading argument. I realized that the problem isn't that people don't want to read or that too many books are being published or that the Attorney General has outlawed literature. It's that bookstores need gianormous pairs of fake tits to attract customers. (That would spice up LFPR a bit, though, wouldn't it?)

I can't believe SER and I didn't even make the cut in the Bravo sitcom contest yet this piece of baboon-scripted comedy anti-matter is on TV. Silly me, if I had just whacked myself in the head with a shovel a few dozen times before writing my script, I probably would be working at Fox right now.

My musical OCD confession

Lately -- okay, for the last several years -- throughout the day and night, I will be found beebopping or doo-de-doo-ing a song, the melody of any catchy song, not the words, internally or, if alone, out loud, and at the end of any verse or chorus, at a time of my choosing, I suddenly finish it off with a terrible, cartoony ending-flourish, a scale-sliding, skibby-doo-wah, razzmatazz-mammy finale -- like, if I were on stage I'd wind up on one knee, whipping off my hat to the audience. Then immediately, keeping up whatever rhythm the "root" song happened to be in, I launch straight into my own, heavily mutated, elaborate version of "Mrs. Robinson" in the same style and the same key. What I'm saying is, every stray song in my head ends up, at some personally delicious moment, morph-medleying into my sick and very private "Mrs. Robinson." I mean all the time. It's just part of me, of whom I have become. It makes me a little nauseated and anxious to contemplate the time and energy I waste on this habit. And hating myself slightly for it only seems to amplify the perverse pleasure. My other musical tic is to doo-de-doo "Lady Madonna" when I walk anywhere. My natural walking pace is precisely the tempo of that song. They just go together and that's that.

Does anyone else do stuff like this?


Calling All Earth Goats

Your suggestions on the future of the Workshop are encouraged - nay, demanded - over at Babies Are Fireproof. No idea is too large or too small, too foolish or too complex. Come one, come all. Etc.

Notes from Jim McPherson's seminars

While I'm cleaning out my desk... I took two seminars from Jim: "Humor" and "Mythology." I'm going to stack these things that came out of his mouth as they appear in my notebook, randomly, and see what happens. Half of these came from the weeks and months before and after 9/11.

Replace life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with immortality, freewill, and access to grace.
The universe is always being created by abrupt surprises and jolts from crisis to crisis.
Calamity is permanent.
Antigone symbolizes the remnant of the Mother Goddess. Sitting Bull, white squaw, Eileen Pollack, Gish Jen.
Transcending of tragedy makes for metaphorical meaning.
Novella is like a drop of water holding its shape. A novel loses its form.
Uniqueness of American culture means unique humor. We're all outsiders. If humor fails here, it really fails. The only model for real multiculture.
Old cultures live on cyclical time. No escape from history.
Before the nation-state there were the sect nations. Bin Laden is resurrecting the sect nation.
Corporation state: Writers must either join in or imagine beyond.
Macedonia was more like Cleveland than Greece. But Alexander slept every night with his copy of The Iliad.
Myth is a narrative linked to a rite.
Romantic love will kill the West.
Men and women lived in different camps. To get a wife, cross the river and steal a virgin.
Look for ritual in modern life.
Involuntary Creation, Indian myth of origin. Vishnu, Shiva, Brahman.
Old Testament has a bias toward chaos.
Ritual dance of aggression on Indian-Pakistani border.
Hesiod: First god was chaos, then Gaia.
5 sheaths of human, from outside to inside: Food (body), Breath (air), Mental, Wisdom (genetics), Bliss.
We join the dragon.
Ghandi was a high-class lawyer who worked for a white government. Read his autobiography.
We had no moral code, so we imported the Victorian one.
We worship the cult of the Ideal.
American humor comes from a synthesis of its various vernacular styles.
America has no tragedy. Though African-Americans and Indians do. The Romans also did not develop tragedy. Maybe it's because our roots are in the future -- you can always pull up stakes and move, change everything. We are not fixed.
Vitality in this country stopped in 1976. There was the Patty Hearst hideout massacre, and from then on the white kids never made a peep.
Did you hear about the old lady put off the plane with her knitting needle? Said she was going to knit an afghan.
Lowering the basement floor: "We were so poor..."
Baltimore dope dealers now selling flags.
We laugh when the mechanical meets the organic.
"I happened to stumble across a case of bourbon and went right on stumbling for several days thereafter." -- W.C. Fields
She's so fat, when she wears high heels she strikes oil.
"I bought a used car and my wife's dress was in the back seat. Was in a hotel that was so bad, they stole my towel." -- Rodney Dangerfield
He's a drunk - they found an olive in his urine specimen.
She's so ugly, when she walks in a room the mice jump on chairs.
She's been picked up so many times, she's starting to grow handles.
"Stay out of the Bushes" -- Jesse Jackson. "Same to you, fella." -- George W. Bush
We must develop what Ralph Ellison called the omni-American sensibility.
Affirmative action has become a product. It should be a process.
Laughter is a corrective.
"America never looks back until there's a crisis." -- Constance Roarke
An old man once told me to "play hide-and-go-fuck-yourself."


Memories of Sam Chang's workshop

I had Sam first semester, first year. I picked her because she was young and would only be there a year and I had liked her stories in Hunger. She was a very calm and soothing presence in the classroom. She had us move our chairs in a tight circle and spoke in a subdued, informal way that put everyone at ease. She explained how the workshop would work, that we couldn't talk while our work was "up," and that prior to the class we would compose a letter to the writer whose work we were discussing. She put up on the board Frank's famous pyramid, which was my first encounter with that. Meaning, sense, and clarity. I was dazzled.

But when she asked for volunteers to go first, as in submit for the following week, I made the mistake of raising my hand. Further, I asked if it was okay to put up a story I had applied with. She said yes, though that wasn't normally done. That's okay, I thought. The piece is so good they'll all have nothing but praise. I believe Dunkeys was the other guinea pig that kicked things off (is that right? Who else was in there? TLB, cek, Kate...).

Needless to say, my story ran into trouble. Students were saying it was cliche, juvenile, they'd read this stuff before, and Sam backed them up without seeming dismissive or mean. All of what they said was true. This was my first workshop revelation about writing: you don't simply repeat the kind of thing others have already done better. I really didn't know that.

In her two pages of written comments, Sam praised my humor and tone, saying that those are hard to achieve, and then pointed out other stuff. The discrepancy between the "humorous" tone and the "traumatic" events happening to our narrator. Being more "ruthless" about scene selection and blend of scene and narrative. She suggesting thinking of a story as a play. When do the characters enter and exit the stage? Why did this one character exit right before the climax? She also talked about structure and pacing: "A linear narrative with a traditional structure of conflict, climax, resolution requires each scene leading toward the climax to increase the reader's anticipation." She finally warned me about too many adverbs and connecting too many sentences with "and" and including too many extraneous details and useless actions (walking out of a room, closing a door, how she folded her hands, etc.) -- Frank's abject naturalism.

My overall feeling as I left the class that day was a mixture of crushing disappointment and revelation. Disappointment in the ego sense, that not everyone thought I was the hotshot I thought I was. Revelation in that writing is not a talent that drops into your lap from the sky, that it must be hammered and hammered -- forever maybe -- and that this process was going to be a long, hard slog, that it was a craft I would have to learn from the beginning, and the only way to learn it was by doing it -- a lot -- and reading what other people were doing, and absorbing lessons from what other readers found in my work, as opposed to what I thought they should find.

In my next stories (somehow I got in three that semester), Sam actually drew graphs that related the forward timeline to the emotional high points -- a kind of Excel chart of my writing. This was fascinating. I copied the technique for use in workshopping other people's stuff and for when I taught undergrad creative writing. It had never occurred to me that a story could be visually represented in such a way that structural things could be immediately seen that couldn't be from just reading the pages. I still do that.

Sam's a great one for handouts and pulling out an essay or three that illuminates the topic of the day. In her seminar on "Length," I collected a good dozen of these pieces by writers such as Charles Baxter, Jane Smiley, and Elizabeth Bowen. Still have 'em. She passed out a terrific interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez that was all underlined and starred in the parts she thought were most important. She's amazing at analysis and can nimbly compare what you are probably trying to do with numerous examples of where that's been done successfully.

If she can apply this broad-based storehouse of writing knowledge with her talent for seeing the structure in things and being able to tell whether it's working -- and bring these to bear at the workshop as an institution, as well as in her teaching and workshopping -- the workshop will no doubt benefit. Yet I love that she is a product of that institution and that she clearly holds Frank up as her model. That bodes well for continuity.

Sam Chang Named New Writers' Workshop Director

Congratulations to Sam! I'll be compiling the links here on Babies Are Fireproof.


AWP Austin

Just re-checking interest; below, I'm pasting my suggested topic from the earlier post, but again, anything is welcome. If we're going to be serious about this . . . well, then we have to be serious about this. Formal proposals are due within weeks, which include bios from everyone involved, as well as a serious commitment to pay for registration fees and attend.

More people are welcome! Please want to do this! It should be a blast -- by all accounts, AWP is an awesome time.

Still, if people want to let this fade away, just don't respond, I guess. I know this is a year from now, but whatever -- I'm not in a position to apologize for AWP's schedule. But if there's serious interest, please commit (or re-commit) now -- and again, other topics are certainly welcome, and this is a good place to discuss them; or whoever wants to present can say so here, and we can discuss this on email.

Would you guys be interested in having a panel discussion on the "American" part of American Literature? We could look at oldies (Melville, Whitman, and of course kclou could take on FSFitzy), but mainly we'd look at authors like DFWallace and DeLillo and whomever else anyone wants to talk about, to see how writers write "America" into their works, our own experiences with similar attempts, and why this nationalist preoccupations in literature are good, bad, etc.

I read a Russell Banks essay a few years ago that decried our lack of a "defining" national literature (The Aeneid/Italy & Homer/Greece being the examples Banks gave, as I recall). My idea would be an exploration of his complaint -- NOT trying to define The Great American Novel so much as looking at how writers have focused on "America" in their works and the effects/ineffects of this.


Notes from Talk/Q&A with Picador Editor

This pertains to Grendel's post below. I went to the Q&A with the Picador editor, which I thought was excellent and informative. The notes, for your reading pleasure:

Picador is known as a “literary paperback publishing house,” meaning that they publish both paperback originals and reprints from hardcover houses. They’re owned by the same conglomerate that owns FSG, Henry Holt, and St. Mark’s Press, and Picador will work with these imprints to do hardcovers, or will do the paperback reprints from those imprints. Picador will also buy paperback rights from other houses, including many of the smaller imprints.

On paperback originals:
- These are rising in importance out of necessity – you need to remove as many roadblocks as possible to new readers. He mentioned the depressing NEA study.
- One of those roadblocks is the cost of hardcover books. Even many editors wait for paperback. And every time you have someone be interested in a book but then think, “I’m going to wait nine months until it comes out in paperback,” it means that you’re going to lose a certain percentage of those people because they forget about the book, get interested in something else, etc.
- Paperbacks at Picador have done very well, so Picador is optimistic about them going forward.
- The perceived problem that reviewers won’t review paperback originals isn’t accurate, and any vestige of this is falling away. Picador has not had a problem getting reviewers to review paperback originals.
- Paperback originals offer lots of good design options, like “French flaps” (ie, the flaps like hardcovers have; Cloud Atlas had these). These increase the cost, but it’s still way less than a hardcover.
- It makes sense to put out some books in hardcover – namely, authors with large existing markets. You get a higher margin from hardcover books, so if there’s a huge amount of solid demand, then, yes, do a hardcover. But for short story collections and debut fiction in particular, a paperback original is a much better idea. Authors can “graduate” to hardcover originals with subsequent books if they develop a large following.
- Things like the age of the author and whether something is hardback or not just don’t matter – make the book really good, and the rest will follow. People will have to review it.

On agents:
- Do not rush into getting an agent. This seemed to be his main reason for coming here (at least his main stated reason). There is no reason to hurry; the agents will still be there when you’re ready. Don’t just sign with someone because they’re “the first person to wink at you,” or because they’ve come to Iowa, or because everyone else seems to be getting one.
- He doesn’t recommend getting agents on a partial manuscript, either – wait until you have a full draft if you can.
- A degree of reservation and skepticism is very healthy.
- You’re much more likely to have a good, productive relationship with your agent if you wait until you’re ready. He knows quite a few people who have ditched their agents because they signed up in haste.

On short stories:
- For short-story collections, your stories should already have been widely published, if possible. He told an anecdote about Tim Gautreaux, who lived in Louisiana and slowly built up years and years of publication credits before being “discovered” by the New York City publishing world. Once his collection came out, it was excellent because it was essentially ten stories that had been whittled down from fifty great published stories.
- He reads literary journals regularly and will email authors he likes to make the contact, even if they’re not ready to go out with a novel or collection. He can thus be an advocate for them when they’re looking for agents.
- The journals he currently likes are: Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, Black Warrior Review, Shenandoah, Black Clock, The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, McSweeney’s, and One Story.
- His dislikes linked stories because he feels as though the linking is done to overcome deficiencies in the stories (deficiencies of craft and narration). His favorite recent ones have not been linked (example: You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett) – that the author’s talent overcomes any need for a gimmick. He told an anecdote about hearing about Hannah Tinti’s Animal Crackers, where the way it was being marketed was that all the stories had to do with animals. He rolled his eyes, but then began to hear that the collection was great, and when he read it, he agreed – the moral of the story being that the marketing conceit was perhaps actually working against it. (Side note: Hannah Tinti is the editor of One Story.)

- He’s currently editing a novel by Ron Carlson.
- He loves the agent Warren Frazier (Frasier?), who has very exacting tastes.
- He loves the book Home Land by Sam Lipsyte (recommended by the LitBlog Co-Op).

Blogging for Overlooked Fiction

Thought some might be interested in the following posting from this Litblog Co-Op thing. Our new friend The Happy Booker is among participants, as is MoorishGirl, and other names some will recognize:

"What would happen if a bunch of your favorite literary blogs got together four times a year and picked a book from obscurity, an overlooked literary gem that we'd get behind as a group and bring to your attention, flogging it ceaselessly both here and on our respective individual blogs?"

There is more, along with comments, at the following URL: http://www.lbc.typepad.com/

Picador editor enthuses about trade paperback originals

I met with Josh Kendall, an editor at Picador, yesterday at the Dey House. After shoving my 162 pages (Part 1) at him, he sat there smiling at me as I stumbled through what I suddenly realized was supposed to be my "pitch." Need to work on that. Anyway, he added mine to his pile and seemed interested in what I'd said about the book. He suggested reading Mason & Dixon, and the way he talked about it made me realize I will have to read that. He talked about Picador and mentioned they publish trade paperback originals, and I perked up. "That's what I want," I said. "That's really great to hear," he said. He said they are doing very well with them and he thinks "they are the future of literary fiction." Really nice guy who gave me about 20 minutes at the end of what had to be a long day for him.


Conroy Workshop - Fall 2002

Conroy Workshop - Fall 2002
Originally uploaded by S Rogers.
Here's a photo some of the Goats and Babies may recall...from our Conroy workshop in the fall of 2002.

Frank Conroy, 1936-2005

I never had the chance to take in Frank first-hand (poets seldom do), but over the past four years I have heard stories about the man (and will probably hear them for the next forty) from friends and frenemies that have painted a singular, striking portrait. I raise my phantom whiskey glass at another old guard passing. Creeley, Bellow, Conroy..."may we meet again in the far, starry Milky Way."

Favorite Bellow?

As reported by Babies, Bellow died yesterday. I know I'm not alone in admiring his writing. I wonder if anyone would be interested in sharing his or her favorite book or passage. Here is a rather endearing passage from his obit in the Times about the process of writing Augie March, which is where I started with Bellow:

He remembered a friend from his childhood named Chucky, "a wild talker who was always announcing cheerfully that he had a super scheme," and he began to wonder what a novel in Chucky's voice would sound like. "The book just came to me," he said later. "All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it."


Creeley Obit

I would have replied to nate's post but for some reason the blog won't let me. I want to register a furious complaint against the NYT for printing Creely's poem without line breaks and in italics. It's hard to imagine a more careless treatment of a lifetime of work. He's a poet, as you can tell by the poem that nate lovingly copied, in which line breaks and stanza breaks are extremely expressive. Nice work obit writers. Keep 'em coming.


AWP Austin, 3/8-11

Anyone (Babies included) want to do a panel at AWP next year? Proposals are due by the end of April (this April), but the proposal is a simple task -- 500 word description, quick panelist bios, no biggie. The panels are limited to six people, I think. Any of you working at a college or university can probably get a few hundred dollars, if not more, to pay for airfare/hotels and all that (adjuncts CAN get funding sometimes, too). AWP itself does NOT provide funding, and you'd have to register for the conference, which is fairly steep, but it's a great chance to meet smart people and also party with them and with me and with each other and all that fun stuff.

So anyone in?

And what should we yak about?

I've got a few ideas, but anything goes. And to be honest, we could probably do an intelligent regurgitation of some of the threads we've had here on Earth Goat. It's that simple.

Robert Creeley 1926 -2005

I just found out today that Creeley died last week. I suppose his passing got a little overshadowed by this whole pope thing. Pope... poet... not so different! Anyhow, here's the NY Times' obituary and a nice memorial at Conjunctions. And one of his most famous poems which I fondly recall Galvin bringing to workshop and reading as if it were the darkest, most sublime thing packaged like a flash of lightning:

I Know a Man

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,--John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.


Dean Young Interview

Writers’ Workshop faculty member Dean Young will be reading at Prairie Lights this Tuesday, April 5, at 8 p.m.. He is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Elegy on Toy Piano (Pittsburg 2005) and Skid (Pittsburg 2002).

A sample of his work can be found at the following links:
Poetry Daily

Despite his computer’s best efforts to sabotage this interview, Young kindly responded to all of the questions I sent him. The questions were solicited from students, admirers, clerics, groupies, band mates, motorcyclists and millionaires. Blame them.

EG: What would you do if you only had 24 hours before the earth’s magnetic poles switched?

DY: That's gonna really mess up out TVs isn't it?

EG: What role do tradition and poetic tropes play in your poems? For example, one might think of the "Lives of…" poems as in the elegiac vein (not to mention a great deal of the new book, whose title might have something to do with this question).

DY: Traditional and poetic tropes are the very things that help us recognize poetry as poetry. I'm not interested in trying to destroy everything that makes a poem a poem as too many writers seem to be trying to do. Whether one approaches the conventions frontally, as in writing an ode, or more covertly, perhaps through covert sound systems or an autobiographical trace, those conventions are there to be reinvigorated, the challenge then is not inhabiting conventions but in not being conventional.

EG: Your work bears undeniable traces of the avant-garde, and yet … [complete as you wish]?

DY: The avant-garde has always been split between a party you want to be invited to and a party that if you're not a member, you're damned as counter- revolutionary. Currently the avant-garde is owned by the experimental, post l=a=n=gooey poets who fetishize novelty to the sacrifice of true amazement, sentimentalize the fragment with assumptions of emotionality and refuse any notion of subject. Wake me when it's over.

EG: Teaching in the Workshop, you must have a pretty good "beat" on the direction of younger American poetry. What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing young American poets?

DY: The challenges to young poets now are the same as the challenges have always been to poets. To write with energy, to stay true to those primary, urgent drives that first made us write poems, to get better, to not be utterly stuck in the sap of our own time.

EG: If you could be any cartoon character, who would it be? Why?

DY: I resent the notion that I am not already a cartoon character. Wait, that didn't come out right.

EG: Do you write in the mornings or the evenings? With or without music? Longhand or directly to the typewriter? Vodka or gin?

DY: All the above except gin, gin makes you mean and a very poor typist.

EG: I am interested in Dean Young, Inc. Who designs and promotes the Dean Young brand? Where are its headquarters, manufacturing facilities, and where can I get free promotional samples of Dean Young? And most importantly, is there really such a thing as Dean Young, or is it just a marketing device?

DY: As you know, as the author of Blondie, I have many subsidiary concerns. For further information regarding these matters, I encourage you to contact Vatican City.

EG: Do you ever resent the labels associated with your work (i.e. humor poet, American surrealist, New York School)? They’re all traditions you clearly work with, but then again, do you worry about them limiting the way your work is read?

DY: I'm sick of all of them because most of the time no one knows what they mean. I don't really care about them limiting the way my work is read though because I hardly care at all how my work is read.

EG: What is your idea of "beauty," either as an aesthetic guideline for writing or as a principle for life in general?

DY: Beauty is the manifestation of form. Form is the manifestation of fatality. I guess you can see where this is going.

EG: Given the choice of super powers, which would you chose: flight or invisibility?

DY: Well, with invisibility I could walk into the girls' locker room alright but flight I think would have far more daily applications. Yet one can imagine being made very exhausted by flying but never so from being invisible. This is a TOUGH question!

EG: What’s you favorite thing to cook? Why?

DY: I like to cook things that take days, many small processes. Thanksgiving dinner (always brine the bird), fish stew (I can't spell the other names for it) starting with salmon heads, lasagna, risotto, missionary.

EG: What’s the longest you’ve gone without writing? How did you feel?

DY: Are you trying to depress me?

EG: How do you think using the third person in your poems changes the way you think when writing them? When you write, do you think of Dean as yourself, or as someone entirely different?

DY: Considering that the person in my poems is always a shifting center of descriptive gravity, the pronouns are rather unimportant. A switch in pronouns may allow a quick exit and scene change which can always help the play along.

EG: If you were forced to write a novel, what would it be about?

DY: It would have to be about what could possibly force me to write a novel, perhaps an even more extreme situation than what forces me to read a novel.

EG: One of the striking characteristics of your work, especially noticeable in Strike Anywhere, is the co-presence of an American confessional mode and a European surrealist aesthetic. That is, the poems are informed by a locatable "person" or "life" as much as by wild associative leaps and humor. In what way do you consider these two projects working together? Are they at odds with each other, or flip-sides of the same coin? Do you have to do a lot of coaxing to get them to cooperate?

DY: For me, what is of primary importance in a poem is the human dilemma. That pang. For emotion to resonant it needs a subject to resonant in, a kind of chamber. The nature of that subject is always shifting, decentered yes, but not nonexistent, more constantly re-centering as our consciousness does whenever we move through our day, meet the various gazes. Even rabbits have selves. I suppose that's a surrealist idea.

EG: How do you make ceviche?

DY: Soak white fish in lime juice. Drain when opaque, toss with a little olive oil, olives, tomatoes, capers, vodka, come on help my out here.

EG: Thomas Hobbes’s "Leviathan": philosophical treatise, or long suicidenote from a reallyboring guy?

DY: Who?


El Gordo de Amore Interview 2

Earth Goat: We're glad you've agreed to come back.

El Gordo De Amore: Last time it didn't go so well.

EG: Well, we got rid of that guy. You have nothing to fear from me!

EA: Great!

EG: So, what are you working on?

EA: I'm on the fifth draft of my novel. It's about a fictional Eastern European country under a spell. It's extremely loosely based on my experiences working in Russia.

EG: Wow! That sounds craptastic!

EA: Well, uh -- What?

EG: So, how do you think you got into the Workshop?

EA: I don't know. I wonder about this alot, since the stuff I tend to like is not "typically workshop," but not really avant garde either. The story I turned in for my application ended up with some magical buffalo, and I --

EG: No, I meant because you're such a talentless hack. No one can understand how you got in, and believe me, I've asked some people. Hoo boy! I don't think Sherlock Fucking Holmes could figure out that little mystery! Watson? Watson! I need a little help here! What's the first story you turned in for the Workshop?

EA: It was about a law firm in the future that only represented clones. They were fighting each other over the original's assets.

EG: Boy, that sounds like a real shit fiesta! Weren't you up with Jennifer Haigh that day?

EA: Err, yes.

EG: I bet she turned in something beautiful.

EA: She did.

EG: And you wasted everyone's time with your zombie story?

EA: Clones.

EG: Whatever. Jennifer Haigh, now, that's a real writer! She was on the Today show, in Entertainment Weekly, won some big awards! How many awards, interviews, and television appearances have you had?

EA: Err -- none.

EG: And you haven't taken the hint yet? What do you want? A burning freaking bush? Faulkner's ghost to rise from the dead and tell you you suck? A letter from the Library Association? How guilty do you feel about Workshop time wasted on you that could have been used for Robert Rosenberg?

EA: Well, I err --

EG: You're not very articulate. Is this why no one at the Workshop likes you?

EA: They don't?

EG: No.

EA: Oh.

EG: Describe your body odor -- one, dead fish; two, regurgitated dead fish; or three, regurgitated dead fish reswallowed and pooped back out?

EA: Don't you think this is a little mean?

EG: I'm thinking choice three.

EA: (unitelligible noises. Sound like a duck).

EG: Your son is incredibly handsome and intelligent. Since this means you can't possibly be his father, how does it affect your writing?

EA: What? Really?

EG: It's KClou.

EA: Oh.

EG: You've obviously married beyond your station. How did you pull this off? Roofies?

EA: What? Man -- I've had enough of this. I'm going.

EG: Wait! I have 16 more pages of notes!

(unintellgible noises and a loud banging sound).

Michael Shiavo removes Pope's feeding tube

Vatican City -- While his in-laws talked to the media and mourners in Florida, Michael Shiavo apparently slipped off to Rome, managed to sneak into the Pope's apartment, and de-inserted the holy feeding tube. He was caught by guards shortly afterward and taken into custody.

Pope John Paul II suffered heart failure during the night, but remains in stable but grave condition, according to papal doctors. "His Holiness was not harmed by this prank. He is responsive and wants to live." When asked whether the Pope was in a vegetative state, one physician said, "Not quite, and if he was it would not be like a tomato. More like an eggplant, a lively eggplant."

A statement read by Shiavo's lawyer declared that the Pope "would not have wanted to live like a vegetable" and should be "allowed to die with dignity." He called on the Italian government to "stay out of it. This is between my client and the Pope."

The portly pontiff was never in danger of starving. "His Holiness was only bereft of the precious NutriGlop for a few minutes," said a doctor.

In Florida, the Schindlers, Shiavo's former in-laws, reacted with shock and anger. "I wish Michael had a feeding tube," said Mrs. Schindler. "I wish a team of liberal, godless, Culture of Death Democrat lawyers and judges yanked it out and he collapsed somewhere on a cold sidewalk in agony and nobody helped him, not even to spit or pee in his mouth if he cried out for water, until he shrank and shriveled up and perished for famine and thirst, with his mouth open and a look of horror frozen on his face. That's what Jesus would want."

On the way out of St. Peters, Shiavo managed to briefly break away from guards long enough to snatch a small pigeon out of a cat's mouth and turn off a hose that had been watering some roses, according to police.